Refugees From Russia-Georgia Conflict Might Never Go Home

An Ossetian sits amid wreckage that forms a war memorial near Tskhinvali.
An Ossetian sits amid wreckage that forms a war memorial near Tskhinvali. (By Sergey Ponomarev -- Associated Press)
By Sarah Marcus
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

TSEROVANI, Georgia -- Just off the highway between the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the city of Gori, epicenter of last year's war with Russia, lies this settlement of single-story, boxlike houses stretching toward the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.

As Georgia marked the anniversary of the war this weekend with ceremonies and speeches, the internal refugees living here continued their daily struggle with the fallout of the fighting -- gathering in clusters to wait for humanitarian aid, searching in vain for jobs and managing the bittersweet memories of their lives before the conflict.

"I never expected this would happen," said Marina Dzhokhadze, 50, sitting in her basic, sparsely furnished home and describing how she had been forced to leave the South Ossetian village of Kemerti a year ago. "I am afraid that it will happen all over again. I pray that God will preserve us from another war."

Dzhokhadze is one of an estimated 30,000 people, mostly ethnic Georgians, who have been unable to return to their homes in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the nearby area of Akhalgori, which was under Georgian control before the war but is now occupied by Russian forces.

Like many others, Dzhokhadze and her family, though not wealthy, enjoyed a comfortable existence in South Ossetia as farmers on fertile land. Now they struggle to make ends meet.

In an address to the country Friday night, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili paid tribute to internal refugees like Dzhokhadze and vowed to reunite the nation not by war but by "peacefully strengthening our democratic institutions, by constantly developing our economy."

A neatly lined collection of bright green and whitewashed houses, Tserovani is the largest of 36 settlements established by the Georgian government. The authorities won praise last year for quickly building the settlements before the onset of winter.

But today, the limits of the settlements are obvious. Almost all are located far from jobs that might be found in urban areas, while the houses sit on small plots that are all but useless for commercial farming.

As difficult as life is for residents in Tserovani, they at least live in structures that don't leak and are equipped with indoor toilets and running water. In other settlements, the houses are damp and as many as eight families share a tap.

"The living conditions are really bad here," said Neli Peruashvili, 53, a Georgian woman who fled her bomb-damaged house in the Ossetian village of Eredvi and now lives in a nearby settlement named Shavshebi. "We have no money. The water in the taps is too dirty to drink so the men have to bring clean water from the next village by hand."

In a nation suffering the effects both of war and the global financial crisis, most displaced by the fighting survive on humanitarian aid and monthly government subsidies of $16 per person because there are few jobs available. They joined a previous wave of more than 200,000 internal refugees from South Ossetia and the Black Sea region of Abkhazia who fled during the separatist wars fought in the 1990s after Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union.

The Georgians who fled South Ossetia are coming to grips with the reality that they may never be able to return to homes and farmlands that they struggled for years to accumulate. The ethnic Ossetians, many of whom are married to Georgians, wonder when they will be able to see the relatives they left behind.

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